Words by Jeremy Burgess
As Lovers Rock begins, we catch quiet glimpses of West London on a Saturday night in 1980.
A train rolls into town. A woman does her friend’s hair. A trio of cooks prepares a curry goat dish in the kitchen. And a DJ crew rearranges the furniture in a two-story house so they can clear out a dance floor and set up their booth.
A phone rings over and over until one of the DJs answers with an abrupt dismissal: “Him not here!”
With that declaration, it’s as if the regular world stops, just for one night; the needle drops, and a reggae blues house party is the only thing that matters for the dozens of people who begin to pour in from all across town.
Lovers Rock, the second chapter in director Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series on Amazon Prime, gives you all the elements that might come with a such an event. There’s an intimidating doorman who charges the men and lets the ladies go through. There are drinks in the kitchen for all to enjoy—Cherry B, Mackeson Stout, Red Stripe. There’s the DJ trio, Mercury Sound, spinning 12- and 7-inch records while ad-libbing to hype up the crowd. There’s an unwelcome intruder who causes a scene and kills the vibe on the dance floor. And there’s the looming threat of violence that could ruin the night at the drop of a hat—local racists, cruising cops, an act of sexual assault.
But those pieces never overshadow what Lovers Rock is really about: the transformative magic of music, a force that can bring strangers together in a way like nothing else. And as the title suggests, there’s plenty of romance to go around.
The central figures here are Martha and Franklyn, a young could-be couple that meet by the stairs and move to the backyard to have a conversation. “Can I beg you a dance?” Franklyn asks. “If you want,” Martha replies, and Franklyn knows he’s been given a green light: “If I want?”
They soon find themselves intertwined on the dance floor, surrounded by other impromptu partners as the DJs keep playing the perfect track over and over. Classics like Gregory Isaacs’ “Mr. Brown”, Barry Biggs’ “Lonely Girl”, Sister Sledge’s “He’s The Greatest Dancer”, and Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting”, which moves the crowd to punch the air along with the beat. The two soundtrack standouts—Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” and The Revolutionaries’ “Kunta Kinte Dub”—receive extended sequences of reverent attention to remind the viewer that it’s all about the music.
For Martha and Franklyn, though, it’s about more than the music as the night goes on. We’re essentially witnessing a first date between the two, a spark of what might become. And we’re given just enough chemistry to root for them.
At just 70 minutes, Lovers Rock doesn’t try to cram in too much story or character building; it simply invites you to the party and lets you be there along with them. And in a time where people across the world have been starved for human connection, it’s an antidote of sorts, one that reminds us of the best of times and gives us hope that there’ll be more to come. (Especially if we pick the right songs.)
Jeremy Burgess is a writer and filmmaker born, raised, and based in Birmingham, AL. Alongside a seven-year career in advertising, he’s written for The Birmingham News, Birmingham Magazine, ModernHorrors.com, and more. His most recent film is Mama Bears, a short documentary made through a grant program with the Memphis Grizzlies.